Jermaine Jones's English is a work in progress, which makes sense for a soccer player who has lived nearly all his life in Germany. But his message came through loud and clear after the U.S.'s humbling 4--0 loss to Spain in a friendly in Foxborough, Mass., last Saturday. When Jones switched his national-team allegiance from Germany to the U.S. in 2009, he saw a chance to revive his international career and play in games against top teams such as the reigning World Cup champions. "It's not nice to lose today, but I want to play for America," said the 29-year-old midfielder, whose father was a U.S. serviceman. "It's nice to be with the boys again, and the games we need to win come now in the Gold Cup."
The most important U.S. men's game of 2011 might take place on June 25 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, potentially against archrival Mexico. And the most intriguing trend of the new World Cup cycle is the addition of Jones and several other dual-passport holders to the U.S. team pool. Colombian-born forward Juan Agudelo, just 18, started against Spain last week (his fifth U.S. cap), and in a March friendly against Paraguay the U.S. had three players in the game whose first language is German: Jones, 21-year-old right back Timmy Chandler and 29-year-old goalkeeper David Yelldell. "Off the field there's a lot of German being spoken," said U.S. star Landon Donovan, who knows the language himself thanks to several stints in the Bundesliga. "Our job is to make sure they integrate on the field."
Enlisting foreign-born players with U.S. passports is hardly a new phenomenon; U.S. World Cup teams in the 1990s featured German-born Thomas Dooley, Dutch-born Earnie Stewart and French-born David Régis, among others. But two recent changes have increased the volume of dual-passport players. In '09, FIFA eliminated the age limit of 21 for players requesting a one-time switch of federations after having participated in official competitive youth matches for one country. That opened the door for Jones and Canadian-born forward Teal Bunbury, age 21, to join the U.S. pool. And now, U.S. Soccer is more active than ever in searching for players around the globe who are eligible for U.S. passports.
If there's a case study in those efforts it's Mikkel (Mix) Diskerud, a 20-year-old midfielder with the Norwegian club Stabæk. In January 2008, Diskerud was playing in an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-20 team in Guadalajara. His Stabæk coach told then U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen that Diskerud had dual U.S.--Norwegian citizenship—his mother is from Arizona—and Rongen asked Diskerud after the game if he'd be interested in attending a U.S. U-20 camp. Diskerud said yes, had three assists in his first start for the U.S. youth team and eventually chose to play for the Stars & Stripes instead of Norway. (He made his U.S. senior debut last November against South Africa and had an assist on Agudelo's goal in a 1--0 win.) "Born in Norway, baptized in Phoenix," Diskerud describes himself, adding that he feels equally Norwegian and American. "I'm a mix," he says with a sly smile.
The cosmic serendipity of Diskerud's discovery—a Norwegian with a U.S. passport in Mexico?—caused Rongen to wonder: How many players with Yank passports could the U.S. find abroad if the federation applied more resources to it? In late 2009 Rongen received permission from U.S. Soccer to create a budget to travel to Mexico and Europe and enhance the U.S.'s connections. Using a network that includes coaches and foreign clubs with ties to U.S. players, Rongen's crew built a sizable pool. "Along the way we discovered probably 500 players as young as 12 and as old as the Olympic [under-23] age group," says Rongen.
Those prospects include Fabian Hürzeler, 18, a German-American midfielder for Bayern Munich's reserve team who has captained German youth squads; Alex Zahavi, 20, a Portuguese-Israeli-American midfielder whose rights are owned by Maccabi Haifa; Conor Doyle, 19, an Irish-American forward for England's Derby County; and Moisés Orozco, 19, a Mexican-American midfielder with Mexico's Tigres.
Several caveats come with those discoveries, however. For starters, not all of the players have committed to the U.S. While Doyle and Orozco joined the U.S. at the recent qualifying tournament for the Under-20 World Cup, they can still switch loyalties. (The team surprisingly failed to punch a ticket for Colombia '11; Rongen was fired as U-20 coach but remains under contract with U.S. Soccer.) And Rongen's list of 500 prospects with U.S. passports becomes less useful at the younger end of the age range, where it's harder to forecast a player's developmental future.
Nor is owning a U.S. passport a ticket to the national team. "If we have [foreign-based] players who are in youth professional setups [and] have American passports, we should obviously monitor them and bring them in," says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. "If they're better than the players we have here, that's great. But the fact that we have a player who is abroad in and of itself doesn't mean anything. It's about, Are you good enough?"
At least one player from Rongen's list is already causing excitement on the U.S. senior team: Chandler, a dynamic right back and midfielder who burst onto the first team at Nuremberg in the Bundesliga during the second half of the season. The son of a German mother and a U.S. serviceman, Chandler debuted for the U.S. in March with solid performances against Argentina and Paraguay. "I always wanted to play in the Bundesliga, and having my first [senior national team] game against Argentina is like a dream," Chandler said, adding that his less-than-enjoyable experience on German youth squads had steered him toward the U.S.
Chandler was expected to be on the U.S. Gold Cup team this month, which would have tied him for good to the Stars & Stripes. (Once a player appears in a senior game in a FIFA or confederation tournament, he cannot change his allegiance.) But Chandler was a last-minute scratch from the roster, and even though U.S. coach Bob Bradley and Chandler's agent cited Nuremberg's concern about off-season rest and small injuries, angst-ridden U.S. fans couldn't help but wonder if they might lose Chandler because of renewed interest from his home country. "The experience we've had with Timmy thus far has been incredibly positive," maintains Bradley. "From the second he moved to the first team at Nuremberg, we were right on top of it. He tells us he's very excited about playing for the U.S."